CROSS VAULT – As Strangers We Depart (2021)REVIEW

It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill […] It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, Dubliners

The only sort of history in perpetuum that will not naturally repeat itself without focused participation is this seemingly deathless cycle of influence and expansion that heavy metal so often relies upon for “innovation” and iterative stand-ins. Earnestly affected, mournful and ‘epic’ heavy/doom metal is rarified for the sake of its status as a tradition of costly personal (read: emotional) investment, one that is worthless if forced into form; These acts must be mangled, or made sport of, to arrive regularly enough in maintenance of mindshare and this is a loss for the artform in every case. Those patient enough to let introversion, depression, and the forever crumbling status of the solemn artist take their course in due time yet yield the best results. The established fan has some specialized ear-hairs attuned to the keening of a destroyed individual or, the echoing memoriam thereof, yet there is an obviate lineage of this specialization that suggests emotionally driven purpose within moments of arrival. As the tragedian waltz of German doom metal quintet Cross Vault bleeds into view we can immediately identify their gait as that of this “in memoriam” lineage of mindset, evocative of a long-standing tradition of collapsing fellowes prior but, leading with a strident purpose that is less concerned with piteousness with each release. Their third full-length, ‘As Strangers We Depart‘, lands upon our shoulders as heaviest spiritual lament, not a flood-eyed shove of a burning ship but an lucid funeral oration meant to inspire pride as often as it releases pain.

Formed as a duo between N. of well-respected pagan black metal project Horn alongside guitarist and bassist M. in 2013 the early messaging from the band was pretty clear that their first album (‘Spectres of Revocable Loss‘, 2014) was concerned with mourning and finding a sort of equivalent emotional impact as that of British doom metal band Warning. They’d gone as far as covering perhaps the most affecting peak of ‘Watching From a Distance’, “Footsteps”, as the closer for their debut. For the sake of context this album, released via Northern Silence‘s heavy/doom metal imprint Eyes Like Snow, was received well in the midst of bands like Pallbearer enjoying peak popularity with Cross Vault representing something more ‘underground’ in feeling with similarly influenced movements. The momentum was absolutely worth riding a bit and this meant recruiting Angel of Damnation drummer Skullsplitter for their second full-length (‘The All-Consuming‘, 2015) which offered some brilliant iteration of ideals and polish upon their debut within a relatively short period of time. This was the album I’d discovered the band through, perhaps because the distribution was a bit more broad, and no doubt those two early records were more or less equitant in terms of melodic values, traditional doom metal dirges and what I’d described as a sort of unending funeral, a wound picked open repeatedly to the point of surrealistic damage. They’d hit upon the intended style via an extremely German approach, even if it were a “modern” emotionally exaggerated form of doom metal they’d presented it with the utmost traditional standards and for this reason I find those two record easy to return to even if the fidelity on the first one is rough. We wouldn’t see any considerable growth in their modus until the live band joined in full membership on the ‘Miles to Take‘ (2016) EP posited something decidedly more paganistic could be pulled from some of the ideas found on ‘The All-Consuming’, which had featured some harsher vocals. This was followed by a roughly five year hiatus in terms of releases as records from Angel of Damnation, Horn and Halphas soon kept each piece of Cross Vault busy.

The interim served Cross Vault‘s songwriters well, developing some Quorthonian spiritus, broader vocal expressivity which feeds into an altogether stronger harmony of elements that the band could consider their strongest, most distinctive voice to date. By honing on emotionally resonant pieces that rise to their own power within longer narrative stretches and elaborate chorus reveals, we can move their entity away from classic Candlemass-centric ‘epic’ doom metal groups towards the deeper-evolved statements from the pagan hearts of Scald and Minotauri to some degree while keeping hold of the emotional nakedness that had originally inspired K. and M. to action. The tonal sensitivity and sentimental tension of Warning now twists the ear as one element of presentation, but their sound altogether leans closer to groups like Isole who’ve made similar movements with ‘Dystopia’. This’d struck me as soon as “Golden Mending” began to open up without fully stretching its lungs (~5 minutes in), a reserved but still effectively ‘epic’ piece and performance that sets the tone without overshadowing the entire record. The balancing act of dismayed tone settled upon detailed melodic phrases lands best when K.‘s vocals begin to invoke the dramatics of Simon Matravers-era Solstice, building towards emphatic, harmonized pieces via the title track and second single “The Unknown Rewinds“. This is a breed of doom metal storytelling which I hunt like wild game; The emotional minstrel delivering ‘epic’ and doomed act with some performative value, a sort of bravado that is consciously musical and clever for the sake of craft — An aspect of performance which we’ve likewise seen on Horn‘s most recent record, ‘Mohngang’. Beauteous pieces are well balanced along the span of the full listen via what I’d call maze-like heavy metal songs which I’d liken to Polish group Evangelist when soaking up “Other Rivers”, where the totentanz of the piece begins to feel cyclic, captive but not wholly torturous.

The main single “Gods Left Unsung” is the only choice to follow the strength of “The Unknown Rewinds” with, vocals soaring out of harmony patiently as ‘epic’ balladry, clearly aiming for this “Footprints” sized moment but via a bonfire incanted atmosphere, recanting a greater journey and charging into dirt-heavy rolling double bass hits and dual soloing while the main ring of the rhythm guitar arrangements maintain this elevation of key influences. However this lands upon the listener it is inarguably framed as the main event and the major conclusion of Side A, I’d found myself cycling back to the combined effect of these two songs in memory as they both offer hooks that set upon the mind melt in.

Wound up within the excitement of cracking into my thoughts on ‘As Strangers We Depart’ I’ve invariably mentioned the five key songs that comprise the full listen and this should indicate the less vital status of the interlude and outro pieces on Side B. The brief instrumental interlude, “Ravines”, is purely for the sake of respite on an already restful, contemplative album. The simple, somewhat dry ~5 minute outro of “Silent Wastes Untrod” appears to have been written for the sake of comfortably looping back to the start. I appreciated the spacing these tracks provided but I’d more than likely flip back to Side A before the final piece finished were I on one of my usual several hour tears through a record I really enjoy on repeat. That is about as intrusive as my analysis gets, the lyrics don’t beg for too deep scouring for meaning on my part because the existential dread which doom metal must have is apparent, and the funereal gallop of paganistic influences speak a readable enough language that I’ve remained engaged within every listen. My only criticism is that if they were planning on going this far with vocal arrangements it does feel like they’ve consciously held back a sort of ‘Hammerheart’ impulse for the sake of retaining a traditional ‘epic’ doom metal stature or, I’d at least like to see where they might take fuller vocal harmonies and chorale since these are some of the most striking additions this record brings to the table. As is, this is an exceptional development for Cross Vault and most fans of ‘epic’ doom metal will be sold within one or two preview tracks. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (85/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:As Strangers We Depart
LABEL(S):Iron Bonehead Productions
RELEASE DATE:May 28th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Doom Metal

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